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Renting a car? Beware phantom tolls

Out-of-town drivers who are unaware of local unmanned e-toll roads can risk paying hefty "administrative fees" to rental car companies.

By MSN Money Partner May 14, 2012 2:44PM

This post comes from Jay MacDonald at partner siteCreditCards.com.

 

When young Milo drove through "The Phantom Tollbooth" in the children's classic, he entered a magical parallel universe filled with beautiful princesses, a lovable watch dog and terrible puns.

 

Image: Businessman driving (© Pixland/Jupiterimages)But when you drive your rental car onto a modern booth-less electronic-toll highway, the only magic you're likely to encounter is the sudden appearance of a toll charge on your credit card statement and a nasty administrative fee from the rental company for its trouble.

 

The phantom toll charges have been nickel-and-diming travelers a lot lately as states, counties, cities and even airports opt for cost-saving e-toll systems. The charges are vaguely disclosed in the fine print of the rental car agreement, but that hasn't stopped the consumer outrage.

 

It's one thing, critics say, to be dinged for a toll you accidentally sped past while on vacation, but quite another to be whammed with huge fees when there was no tollbooth or negotiable means to pay the toll in the first place.

 

One CreditCards.com reader was charged $2.50 in tolls and $50 in administrative fees for two toll violations, while another was dinged $5 total for seven violations and $175 in administrative fees -- $25 per infraction.

 

Last year, Seattle attorney Averil Rothrock launched a class-action suit against Fox Rent A Car and Violation Management Services after she returned from a Denver trip to find a $106 charge on her credit card. The amount reflected two $3 tolls and two $50 "service fees."

 

"The 'service fee' is nothing other than an illegal scam to collect from customers amounts they do not owe," Rothrock says in the lawsuit. She contends that Fox gives customers no way to pay the tolls without incurring the egregious fee, and that the two companies "conspired to turn Fox customers' tolls into an illegal profit center for themselves."

 

Consumer outrage has spawned similar lawsuits and even captured the attention of Florida's attorney general, who ordered refunds for rental customers in settlements with Avis Budget Group and Hertz for failing to adequately disclose details of their automated toll collection programs.

 

Unmanned e-toll systems use one of two systems to charge tolls:

  • Radio signals, which electronically record and assess tolls on vehicles equipped with a pocket-sized transponder or mini sticker; or
  • Cameras that snap a shot of license plates then assess tolls on vehicles registered with the tolling authority.

If you're a local, you probably know your local toll road's system. You avoid the road if you don't have an account with the tolling agency or if that account is running on empty. And you know when to swing over to the exit for the cash-only lanes, where they exist.

 

If you're in a rental car, however, you're likely in unfamiliar territory -- both at the rental agency and on the road itself. (Post continues below.)

"It's been a perennial problem for both the rental car companies and the toll authorities," says Philip Underhill, a vice president at PlatePass, an electronic toll payment system from Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions. "People who get into rental vehicles are typically unfamiliar with the location, not aware of tolls, and find themselves on a toll road with no cash or ability to pay, and they're stuck."

 

Vague details in rental agreements

Details regarding onboard electronic toll collection programs are often buried in fine-print "Terms of Use" on rental car agreements.

 

Dollar Thrifty freely posts its service fee ($25 per toll violation), but most of the major rental companies are less forthcoming; Avis Budget Group lists only a "reasonable administrative fee," and Hertz mentions an "administrative fee." A customer service rep for National revealed that the company charges a flat $18 administrative fee for all tolls missed within a single municipality, but dodge one in the next city over and it's another $18 fee.

 

Rental car customers can always opt out of any e-tolling service offered by their rental company by choosing to pay tolls in cash via prepaid passes -- such as Florida's SunPass, available at retail outlets -- or by avoiding toll roads altogether. But you have to know that before you hit the road.

 

Failure to opt out at the time of rental, however, can either automatically enroll you in the renter's e-toll program for a daily fee or leave you open to toll violation fines and administrative fees if you fail to pay as you go, an increasingly common scenario with the growth of e-toll highways.

 

Underhill says the service fees may seem punitive, but that they're not excessive considering the paperwork that must pass between the toll authority, the rental company, your credit card company and you to resolve the issue. "Every time you touch a piece of paper, you're talking dollars in cost, not cents in cost," he says.

 

Consultant Neil Abrams says the rental car companies, as registered owners of the vehicles, are required by statute to pay the "millions and millions of dollars in violations" they receive on their fleet every year in toll violations and parking tickets.

 

And no, the rental car company won't "take care of it" for you. If you don't pay up, late fees will accrue, and you may suffer points against your license. In extreme cases, you may even be subject to arrest the next time you're in town.

"Eventually, you gotta pay the piper," Abrams says. "A $150 parking ticket in New York that's thrown away by a rental customer quickly becomes a $500 violation that they have to chase the customer for."

 

Tips: How to avoid "phantom" toll charges

  • Read your car rental agreement online before leaving home.
  • Call the rental company's toll-free number to find out how tolls are collected at your destination.
  • Ask the rental agent at the counter to confirm the company's toll collection process and associated fees.
  • If you choose to rent a car with e-toll collection, ask how it is activated; some begin charging daily or flat-fee rates upon rental, others won't activate until you pass through an e-toll booth.
  • Download and carry a map of toll roads at your destination, often available from the rental car company or online from the state highway authority or e-pass provider.
  • Keep all toll receipts from your trip.
  • Once home, check for any toll violation notices in the mail. If you pay promptly, you may avoid the rental company service fee.
  • Check your credit card statement closely for the next two months for suspicious or duplicate charges on your bill as toll processing can be slow.
  • Report any suspect charges to your credit card company and the rental company.

More on CreditCards.com and MSN Money:

13Comments
May 14, 2012 6:11PM
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There are quite a few now in South Orange County here in Southern California.  Just like the article stated, I got caught in a "run down" on a toll road where proceeding past an unmanned toll booth would result in a huge fine and there was no way to pay.  Pretty common (predatory) business model used by these companies to nickel and dime money from motorist.  I absolutely avoid toll roads like the plague.  I hope they all go out of business.  
May 14, 2012 6:39PM
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I have never seen a completely unmanned e-toll road. 

 

Well, then, that proves it.  This article is based on a complete fabrication.

 

Unless (just thinking out loud here)... is it possible that CTBob1 hasn't been to places that have unmanned toll booths, such as TX 121 north of Dallas, and any one of several off-ramps of I-294 or I-355 in Chicago?

 

Nah.  Clearly if CTBob1 hasn't seen it, it doesn't exist.

May 14, 2012 10:26PM
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Unmanned tolls have existed in the Chicago area for about 15 years now.  At one time it would be the smaller toll roads or exits that had them.  Now they are all over the place. 

May 14, 2012 6:42PM
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Helpful hint:

There are arisol sprays that make your liscence plate super reflective and when hit by the photographic flash will "blind " the camera with too much light.  Ruined photo and saved from **** govt. troll thieves.  Here in California a right turn without a full stop gets a $400-$500 ticket. 

Look in the back of car magazines for the adds for these spray can products.

 

Good luck fellow suffers of our money crazed elites.  Jim Ph.D.

Dec 30, 2013 10:30AM
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Seriously???  We rented a car from Dollar Rent-a-Car in TX when we went for a funeral in November. 

 

When we approached highway tollbooths, there was no "pay by cash" option.  We have just received an invoice from Dollar for $5.40 in tolls, and $60 in "administrative fees"!  Sixty dollars?  That's four tolls at $15 a pop.  I have no objection to paying a fair admin fee but $60 for a computer to spit out a letter?  Highway tolls should not be another profit center for rental car companies. Class action cases and AG complaints have been filed in other states.  I will be expolring those options!

May 14, 2012 7:06PM
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I have been hit twice with these fees on toll roads while driving rental cars.  Once in PA where an unmanned exit charged for unmarked fee, But, PA sent me a bill directly.  In IL passing by Chicago on Interstate 80 a toll road 15 cent charge to my rental company (National) resulted in a $10 fee from the car rental co. Bogus charge of 15  friggen cents?
Oct 2, 2013 7:22PM
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Most of Florida tolls around Fort Lauderdale & Pompano are unmanned. I had to send a check for the toll right away because I didn't want to be charged from the Rental company!

May 14, 2012 9:57PM
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I have never seen a completely unmanned e-toll road. 
 
Come to Oklahoma.  There are several on/off ramps that are unmanned.  There is a booth for exact change.  If you don't have exact change, you are screwed., however,
May 15, 2012 4:39PM
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You think that is robbery, try bringing a rental back at 3 in the morning

and no gas stations around.

I did and was down maybe 1-1.5 gallons and was charged for 16 gallons at 10/gallon

You pay for a full tank at 10 bucks/gallon.

That is a rip off

May 14, 2012 5:30PM
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I have never seen a completely unmanned e-toll road.  Anywhere I have ever been had at least one cash lane.  Same things for parking garages and lots-there is always a way to pay cash if you desire.
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